The Ken Wilson era in Reno is officially underway for the 2022 Nevada Wolf Pack football team.
Wilson, who spent over two decades as an assistant coach and administrator at Nevada with Wolf Pack legend Chris Ault from 1989 to 2012, was hired as the team’s head coach after Jay Norvell flocked to Colorado State last December. On the opposite side, longtime head coach Jerry Kill returned to the sidelines after a seven-year absence of full-time HC duties — his first with the New Mexico State Aggies.
Wilson’s squad ultimately got the best of NMSU, as the the Wolf Pack took the 23-12 win in Las Cruces, N.M., on Saturday evening, extending its win streak against NMSU to five games and moving to 15-2 all-time against them.
After a dismal start, Nevada conjured 273 yards of total offense with 18 first downs — two more than its counterpart — in the winning effort. Quarterbacks Nate Cox and Shane Illingworth (more on them below) both saw time behind center; Toa Taua and Devonte Lee, as expected, were the vocal points of the Pack offense behind a newfangled offensive line; While it caught a couple of breaks, strung together a valiant defensive effort, forcing five turnovers.
Before we delve too deep into the weeds, let’s dive into some takeaways from Saturday night’s victory:
1. Shane Illingworth starts at QB for Nevada; He, Nate Cox split reps
With Carson Strong’s departure, there was plenty of preseason speculation on who would start at quarterback. Wilson was unwilling to name a starter leading up to the start of the game, but the competition was between Oklahoma State transfer Shane Illingworth and incumbent signal caller Nate Cox.
Illingworth went 3-0 as a starter at Oklahoma State, completing 57.5 percent of his attempts for 939 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Cox was the only returning Pack player to have thrown a pass at the FBS level.
Illingworth ultimately earned the team’s starting nod Saturday, though he got off to a slow start after he was put into a few less-than-ideal down-and-distance situations. Illingworth finished 7-for-12 for 51 yards without a touchdown pass.
Cox received a majority of the second half reps. He didn’t complete a touchdown pass either, but still completed 7-of-11 passes for 27 yards. The 6-foot-9 quarterback wasn’t afraid to showcase his sneaky dual-threat capabilities, also running for 37 yards on the ground on six carries.
It’s unclear who will start Week 2’s home opener against Texas State, as it could be on a week-to-week basis until further notice. But it will clearly be something to monitor throughout the coming weeks, especially when it conference play approaches at the end of September.
2. Defense ignites early spark
The Wolf Pack’s offense sputtered for two yards on nine their first three drives, looking completely discombobulated and out of sync through one quarter and change. Though after the Pack D forced their second turnovers — a Bentlee Sanders interception — Nevada’s offense completely turned the corner, operating with tempo and cohesion.
Toa Taua opened with a pair of rushes for 24 and 13 yards, respectively, before a 32-yard rushing touchdown from Devonte Lee that capped a four-play, 80-yard drive.
Nevada scored on its final two possessions of the half — a field goal from Talton, the first of three he had on the night, and Lee’s second (and final) rushing score of the night — which both coming after NMSU turnovers. Here’s how the first six Aggie drives panned out:
- Nine plays, 49 yards: Missed FG
- 12 plays, 43 yards: INT (Isaiah Esssissma)
- 3 plays, -3 yards
- 4 plays, 40 yards: INT (Sanders)
- 2 plays, one yard: INT (Essissima)
- 3 plays, -7 yards: Strip sack fumble (Dom Peterson)
Over this six-drive span, Nevada had four tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, one fumble recovery. If that can’t give an offense a lift, I’m not sure what will.
3. Strong defensive effort overall:
Speaking of defense: Nevada’s wasn’t perfect by any means on Saturday night.
New Mexico State’s offense was inhibited by poor quarterback play in the first half, myriad drops from its pass catchers and occassional back-breaking penalties that shut down drives.
JUCO transfer Diego Pavia completed just nine of his 20 attempts for 75 yards and three picks; conversely, true freshman Gavin Frakes was near pitch-perfect, going 9-for-13 for 143 yards, one touchdown and an interception on his final pass of the game.
Nevada also committed a few faulty penalties — including two defensive holding penalites and one pass interference penalty — on its final two drives that gifted additional opportunities that the Aggie offense couldn’t fully capitalize on.
Nevertheless, the Wolf Pack’s defensive effort was still very encouraging. It swarmed NMSU’s rushing attack and got a decent push, for the most part, for a majority of the evening.
Over the first three quarters, Nevada limited the Aggies to just nine points, nine first downs and 205 yards, including 2.8 yards per carry and five yards per play. Again, that came in-part to a dysfunctional NMSU offense at times — but the Pack, with plenty of inexperience on its front-seven — held their own.
On the night, they finished with four tackles behind the line of scrimmage with the five turnovers forced: Four interceptions — one deflecting off the wideouts hands — and the aforementioned fumble recovery.
Pretty good start to the season, eh?
4. No active returning starters within The Union, no problem?
The Pack returned just two offensive starters this year: Tailback Toa Taua and right tackle Aaron Frost, who was the lone Pack player named to the preseason All-Mountain West team.
Frost got hurt in practice in the weeks before the season with an undisclosed injury; Wilson said he will miss major time, but failed to give any timetable for a potential return.
Thus, it played with a brand new Union.
Nevada had redshirt senior Trey Hamilton the start at right tackle, the first start of his career. From left to right, it also started Grant Starck-Zac Welch-Bryce Peterson-Kai Arneson — Peterson being the one with arguably the most FBS experience, starting 30 games at Akron from 2018-20.
He did, however, have two faulty snaps — one of which resulted in a safety — with minimal holding/false start penalties, so it certainly wasn’t the worst outing for The Union. But there are areas to clean up.
Amid those other hiccups with miscommunication and containing NMSU’s experienced front-seven, it still rushed for 4.3 yards per carry without surrendering a sack on the night, albeit attempting just 23 combined passes on 59 plays.
Taua rushed for 109 yards on 19 carries, while Lee had 61 yards and a pair of scores (on 4.7 ypc). As a team, Nevada conjured up 45 carries for 195 yards; for perspective, it eclipsed those marks just once during the Jay Norvell-era: Against Idaho State in 2017, when it totaled 56 carries for 218 yards and one touchdown.
5. Saturday’s performance emphazied the key word that needs to be preached all season: Patience
If you type up “patience definition” into Google, this is what it spits out: “The capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.”
Patience, for better or worse, will be the theme of this Nevada Wolf Pack football season. Truthfully, it’s not going to be about wins and losses when it’s all said and done; it’ll be about the progress to ultimately paint the future of the program. That said, every win counts and will go a long way to raising the ceiling, though.
Nevada returned the fewest production of any team in the FBS. It brought in more than 50 new players — freshman and transfers combined — with an entire new coaching staff, schemes and player personnel.
All things considered, its 11-point victory could’ve gone better, but it also could’ve gone much worse.
The start of Saturday’s night game fully encapsulated what the season might look like on a game-by-game basis; the intro was rocky without a rhythm. Whatever word you want to use — shaky, mundane, confounding — that’s how the start was.
It tightened the screws throughout and somewhat figured it out. It wasn’t always pretty. In fact, it nearly gifted the Aggies the ball in a crucial situation — Cox nearly threw a should-have-been interception up eight with less than three minutes to go, although the play wasn’t reviewed in time for it to be ruled an INT — but the Pack still perservered.
It doesn’t take a Rocket Scientist to know this year offers different expectations than it did under Norvell, clearly. It put up more than twice as many points against a similar defensive personnel last season. That wasn’t the case Saturday.
For some instances, it’s the perfect word that could be preached after any first game in any given year, depending on the team and the team’s expectations of course. For Ohio State or Alabama, probably not. But for Nevada — on the complete opposite end of the spectrum — it’s necessary.
The Wilson era is now fully underway with a long season ahead. Nevada will have to continue establishing its identity on both sides of the ball over the next several weeks to construct that foundation. The breadcrumbs for its run-oriented attack were laid in New Mexico, but it will have to continue refining what it wants to set a foundation for the tail-end of the season and for seasons thereafter.
Patience. Amid everything, patience is key.
Nevada will have its home opener on its newly-renovated field next weekend against Texas State at 5:30 p.m. ET, televised on Nevada Sports Net.